Thursday, March 11, 2010

Of course you could just wait for the movie...

Thanks, everyone, for visiting this blog. I’m still getting used to the idea that people care what I have to say. Some people hate what I say while others find it useful, but it’s just a strange feeling to have people care one way or the other. Sometimes the only way that I can muster up the courage to write this blog is to pretend to myself that no one reads it.

I didn’t even want to start this blog. Truth is a friend of mine thought I should have one and created this blog and told me to fill it in. I figured I might as well. That’s pretty much the way I started teaching too. I needed the money and someone thought I’d be good at it. Turns out I am pretty good at it. Who knew?

A few years ago some of my students and a few friends told me that I should write a book. I had never written a book and didn’t think I could do it. Anyway, in 2003 I wrote one. People liked it, but no one wanted to publish it until now. You can read about that here:

The book is titled Invisible Ink, just like this blog. In fact, the name of the blog comes from the book. If you have liked this blog, the book takes the same ideas and expresses them in more detail. Thanks to all of you for reading the blog all these years, and I hope you will find the book helpful.

Here are some of the people who did me a huge favor and read the book in manuscript form before there was any publisher in sight. I am eternally grateful to them. They all did this because they believed in me and my book. They did this out of the goodness of their hearts to help me get this thing published:

“Writing stories is hard. They are stubborn by nature. No matter how many times you master one, the next story is obligated to conceal its faults with an entirely new disguise. Your only recourse is to keep writing, while concurrently increasing your understanding of this deceivingly simple, yet highly complex, organism we call story. Brian McDonald’s insightful book does just that. Somehow, Brian has found yet another fresh and objective way to analyze how great stories function, and emboldens you to face the challenge of scaling whatever story mountain looms before you. If I manage to reach the summit of my next story it will be in no small part due to having read Invisible Ink.”
—Andrew Stanton (cowriter Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., and cowriter/director Finding Nemo and WALL-E)

“Invisible Ink is a powerful tool for anyone who wants to become a better screenwriter. With elegance and precision, Brian McDonald uses his deep understanding of story and character to pass on essential truths about dramatic writing. Ignore him at your peril.”
—Jim Taylor (Academy Award™- winning screenwriter of Sideways and Election)

“Brian McDonald’s Invisible Ink is a wise, fresh, and highly entertaining book on the art of storytelling. I read it hungrily in one sitting, delighted by his careful and illuminating analysis of my favorite films, novels, television shows, and even comics. A multitalented creator, McDonald never errs in his critical judgments or the very practical principles he provides for creating well-made stories. I recommend this fine handbook on craft to any writer, apprentice or professional, working in any genre or form.”
—Dr. Charles Johnson (National Book Award-winning author of Middle Passage)

“If you want to write scripts, listen to Brian. The guy knows what he’s talking about. A very well-thought-out, easy-to-follow guide to the thing all we writers love to pretend we don’t slavishly follow—story structure.”
—Paul Feig (creator of NBC’s Freaks and Geeks)

Invisible Ink is an uncommonly good guidebook that reveals the unseen workings within great movies, TV, and literature. Brian McDonald, the author of the guidebook, is like a modern day magician who understands the enchantment that lives within a good story, and fortunately for us, he is ready to share his many secrets.
—Joel Hodgson (creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Cinematic Titanic)

“Don’t tell anyone, but the secret to exceptional story crafting is written in Invisible Ink. I advise you read it, memorize it, and then eat the pages one at a time and digest it thoroughly, so that it stays with you. Besides, you can’t afford for this book to fall into the hands of your competitors. Brian’s powerful concept of armature as understructure will change the way you look at movies and writing forever.”
—Pat Hazell (producer/playwright/ former writer for NBC’s Seinfeld)

“Invisible Ink fell into my hands at just the right time—as I was banging my head against the wall trying to structure a screenplay that had too much going on in it. The book’s thoughtful exploration of what makes movies work helped me see my core story clearly, and throw away a third of my material—which I now understand will not be missed. I have a stronger, more focused script thanks to a process inspired by this book.”
—George Wing (screenwriter of 50 First Dates)

I would like to thank these guys for their early support.

As for the followers of the blog I hope that the book does not disappoint.


-- Brian


Chris said...

Hey, congrats!!!!

I still have the early pdf version you gave me. But I just bought the new printed version on Amazon. It's about time someone recognized your work needed to be published.


RAWLS said...

Congrats Brian! I'll have to head out and pick up a copy! Great work my friend!!

Kevin Sterling said...

Congrats on the book, Brian! I saw your blog a few days ago and ordered it. It arrived on my doorstep today and I can't wait to read it! -Kevin

Jett said...

Hi Kevin

Just ordered your book. I'm here via Ted Mathot's Rose and Isabel site and have spent several hours both reading past posts and emailing my friends directing your attention to your blog.

I'm wondering if you ever forsee storytelling in Hollywood making its way out of the desert or if we are doomed for several more decades of bombastic drek?

I'm also wondering if you have seen the incredible fisking the guy at "Red Letter Media" does for the Star Wars prequels and what your thoughts were on them. He seems to do a really credible job explaining just why they they didn't emotionally connect or even remotely make sense.

I'm also curious how often you have workshops up in Seattle. Are they a class or an all day event or just how you have set them up? I'd really like to attend one.

Thanks much and I early await your next post.

Brian McD said...

Hello Jett,

Yes, Ted Mathot was very nice to me on his site.

And thanks for telling people about my blog. I’m glad you’re finding it useful.

To answer your questions, I’m not sure if Hollywood will make its way out of the “story desert”. As long as they think more about demographics and opening weekends than they do about engaging an audience emotionally they will produce what they have been producing for the last couple of decades.

People often feel that I am being harsh or short-sided when I say that was are living in the dark ages as far as stories are concerned, but if we have had times of genius in the world like the renaissance or New York in the 1950’s then it is possible for the opposite to be true. Why is it hard to imagine that this may be a kind of Dark Age?

Am I saying that there were no bad stories before? No. Am I saying that all movies suck now? No. What I am saying is that there is a lack of respect for storytelling and the craft that it takes to do that job. It has tipped the scales so that there are almost no classics produced in Hollywood.

There was a time when several classics a year would be produced. Now, if we are lucky, we get one every few years. If we are lucky.

Hollywood complains that that they get bad screenplays and that’s true, but it’s partially their own fault. When people see a bad film they think, I can write better than that. So now everyone with a laptop thinks they can write a movie. The idea that there is a craft, that there are things to know is beyond them. Hollywood feeds this monster by putting out substandard product.

I wish I saw this changing, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

I’m an old enough to remember when people left films elated and buzzing about what they had just seen. They would be quoting lines and retelling events. Now, they almost always leave to theater in silence. The films doing not reach people emotionally. Don’t take my word for it observe this yourself when you go to the movies.

Yes, I have seen "Red Letter Media" on youtube. And aside from the weird serial killer stuff he does that gets him off topic they are on the money. He’s a really observant guy.

As for classes, I’m not sure how often I will do them in Seattle. I just did a daylong class in Austin TX. I want to move around the country more.

One day soon I will have a site that announces when and when I will be speaking.

Thanks for reading and writing,

-- Brian

Clint said...

Unfortunately, we are not a literate society, certainly not on the scale we were when Wilder, Mankiwiecz, Diamond, Trumbo, Riskin, Pierson, et al, were writing. I've tried in vain to find it again, but I read an extended quote from a speech Pierson gave years ago (I believe in the WGA's Written By) in which he said that the Spielberg/Scorsese/Coppola generation learned from the classic generation of filmmakers that was steeped in classic literature, and thus classic storytelling. The later generations were steeped in...Spielberg, Scorsese, and Coppola. They're copying the students instead of learning from the masters, with the same result as copying a copy instead of from an original.

And so the last real "masters" we have remain those few from the Seventies who bothered to learn at the knee of those who perfected the form. I finished Ed Dmytryk's book on film editing recently and his disdain for "modern" film--he was writing in the Eighties--was stated outright and palpable throughout the book. I personally feel the big turn for the worst occurred in the early 90's, but whether it was the Eighties or Nineties, somewhere in there formula and low financial risk seemed to become the operating principles on a scale unseen before, at least by me.

And I find it not a coincidence, too, that the change came right around the time that spec screenwriting became a cottage industry. In 1993, when I first became serious about it, books on screenwriting numbered about, oh, eight. And of course now they could fill several bookshelves, and magazines on screenwriting make it seem all that more accessible. (Is it too unfair or unkind to comment on how many of the films by scribes interviewed about their scripts in those magazines do poorly in release? I find it hard to believe that *that* many could be screwed up in development, which is a very real problem. Could it be that they haven't learned all they need to know yet, and maybe it might be better to check in with them after they have two or even three successful films credited to them?)

It just seems like there's a glut of doing and a dearth of real investigation.

Brian McD said...

Hello Clint,

I agree with just about all you say here. And I often say exactly what Pierson said. What we have now is a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox – each generation is getting further from the source and therefore quality has begun to degrade.

I believe it was the early 80s when there was a marked drop in quality. The 70s was a kind of golden, but around 1982 something happened. In 1982 (I was just having this discussion with a group of friends) there were a ton of good films. Not just good, but varied. I have talked about this a little bit before. But in ’82 we had Gandhi, E.T., The Verdict, Tootsie and a bunch of others.

When many people read these things they think that I am saying all films are bad. Of course there are good films, but there are far fewer than there used to be.

I think corporations had a lot to do with what I see as the downfall of film. This is from another site, but it is telling:

There were a great many mergers and takeovers in the movie business during the Eighties. In 1982, Coca-Cola acquired Columbia, and then Sony purchased Columbia and Tri-Star from Coca-Cola seven years later. 20th Century Fox became the property of oilman Marvin Davis, and in 1985 media baron Rupert Murdoch purchased a 50% interest in the studio. MGM merged with United Artists in 1981, and then was acquired by Ted Turner. Paramount was taken over by Gulf+Western in 1989. As profits went up, so did budgets; film stars began earning huge salaries. And the sales of videos, along with revenues for cable TV distribution of theatrical releases, increased studio earnings. At the same time, multi-screen cinemas spread like wildfire across the country.

In my opinion none of these events helped film as an art form. It made everything about the bottom line -- about the opening weekend.

I remember when the original Star Wars had been playing for one year in the theater they took out a full page add in the paper to celebrate. They were more concerned with longevity then. They thought people must like it if they keep coming to see it.

Now, it’s about opening weekend and I think that makes people make another kind of film – one that makes a great trailer, but not necessarily a great film that will stand the test of time.

All a big opening weekend means is that the marketing was effective. They should give out Academy Awards for marketing.

As far as specs are concerned I think it there were better movies there would be better specs. People sit in a theater and think, “I can write a better movie than that”. So they get a screenwriting program and start typing. Maybe they read a book. And maybe they even read a screenplay. But many do not. They just try to bang out something as good as the last bad film they just saw.

On the other hand if there were more masterpieces it would raise the bar for those trying to break in. Many would at least try to rise to the level of what they saw in the theaters.

I love film and know how good it has been in the past and all I want is for us too attempt to reach those heights.

Clint said...

"People sit in a theater and think, 'I can write a better movie than that.' ... They just try to bang out something as good as the last bad film they just saw."

Terry Rossio has a column on the Wordplayer website called "Crap plus 1," challenging screenwriters to avoid the very pitfall you describe. I've always read the best scripts and tried to emulate them rather than read the worst and try to avoid their mistakes. I do better aiming high. (Yes, I did see your blog entry on that. In fact, I've read your book and all of your blog entries--all of them--over the last four days, and what I keep wondering is, "Did he watch Northern Exposure? Does he know Chris and Bernard?" It's those kind of similarities, that make you go "Huh" a lot. Down to the "Once upon a time ____" technique.)

I think you're right that it's both the quality AND the variety of stories that is the difference these days. The unique films today stand out so much because so much is indistinguishable from the rest. The situations, the direction, the dialogue, the tone are simply too similar, leaving room for something like an Amelie or Moulin Rouge or Batman Begins to break through and remind us what *cinema* can actually look like.

By the way, I'm reminded again that the quality trajectory of Spielberg's own films seem to mirror what we're seeing in film generally. He hasn't made a great film since Schindler's List, and I had my problems with it. His first twenty years were spectacular; his last twenty mostly a yawn. Is that a result of the same forces? You can't be more original and fresh than the restrictions placed on you by the studio? Or is it something our present culture is doing to even our best filmmakers?

Brian McD said...

I’m not surprised that other people have said that they bar is low and people are aiming for it. I see it a lot as a teacher.

Northern Exposure, I saw it a few times. I think I watched it for a season or so. I liked it okay, but never got hooked. But it seemed like an okay show.

As for difference standing out. That is true. But I’m not one that believes that difference in and of itself has much value. It’s easy to be different and hard to be good. I’m not impressed by different. Watch the short film about designer Paul Rand:

You are correct I don’t think that Spielberg has made a great film since Schindler's List – but he made Schindler's List! If I ever make a film that good I’ll go to my grave a happy man. I honestly think there is no better film than that. Maybe there are some as good, but none better.

I only criticize a film if I honestly think I could make a better one. I cannot say that about Schindler's List. By the way, I might be very wrong about the films I think I could make better.

Oh, and I have to speak up for Saving Private Ryan which came after Schindler's List. I know people hate the wraparounds with the old man. But if you take those out it’s a pretty amazing film.

Spielberg reminds me of a friend I have who works at a café. She was always on time when all the other workers were late every day. One she came in late and got read the riot act. Why? Because she had set the bar high. If she had shown up late every day no one would have noticed.

I think Spielberg is so good at what he does that when he screws up it sticks out in a way in doesn’t with lesser filmmakers. I think he has set the bar high for himself. His screw-ups stand out in contrast against what he does so well. And what he does well is invisible to most people because that’s when they are sucked into the story.

I just think Spielberg brings the best out of each script he gets – he doesn’t always choose a great script. That’s were I think his problem lies. I think he needs stronger writers.

Having said that sometimes an artist has a stretch of lesser work just before they have a breakthrough.

I remember when 1941 came out. Spielberg was the Wunderkind who had made Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But 1941 bombed. I didn’t like the film myself. And I remember people saying that he was done. That he didn’t have it anymore.

But I saw that he was a consummate storyteller. He was as good with telling stories with picture as anyone had been before. I saw that he could move an audience. That’s skill, not just talent. I knew he would do something great again. His next film was Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Yes, he’s done films that I hate, but he is still good at what he does. I would not count that guy out. And if he never makes a great film again he still hasn’t done too badly.

I don’t think Wilder made another great film after The Apartment. He made Fortune Cookie, which is good, but it ain’t the apartment. But Billy Wilder is still Billy Wilder.

My feeling is that Spielberg needs better scripts and he’s just not that good at picking good ones.

By the way, if anyone else is reading this exchange I don’t want to have an argument at Spielberg. I have had the same argument for 30 years.

Brian McD said...

Oops -- here's the Paul Rand movie:

Clint said...

"As for difference standing out. That is true. But I’m not one that believes that difference in and of itself has much value. It’s easy to be different and hard to be good. I’m not impressed by different."

I very much agree with you about that. Being different for the sake of being different is just laziness and not unlike all the rebels in high school rebelling in the same way and hanging out together. Conformity by another name. I only meant (a) that it's easier for truly unique stuff to stand out when the homogeneity of current film is so complete, even in the ways it's often done to be different; and (b) that what set earlier eras of film apart from today is, as you say, both the sheer variety of stories being told, and how many were masterfully done in the process. But like Rand says, you don't have to be original so much as good, and that's the failing today: Even the same stories as told back then would be better received if they just seemed in the same galaxy of quality. I've realized in the last couple of years that my favorite modern films are those that *feel* like a classic film. It shouldn't be that way. I should be able to simply enjoy them as great cinema, without the nostalgic, "That's how films *used* to be made."

And of course now I'm scrolling through the films from the last decade that made me feel like that, or at least entertained me in a hugely cinematic way. Chicago, Amelie, Bourne Identity, The Prestige, 3:10 to Yuma (yes, the new one, which has made me want to see the original), Batman Begins, and for non-Pixar films, I think that's about it. Every Pixar film from the last decade has been a jewel, with special notice for Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. I bow before Pixar. They get it like nobody else currently does.

"You are correct I don’t think that Spielberg has made a great film since Schindler's List – but he made Schindler's List! If I ever make a film that good I’ll go to my grave a happy man. I honestly think there is no better film than that. Maybe there are some as good, but none better."

I had an interesting reaction to Schindler's List. I recognized it as an excellent film, and a powerful one, but there was a distance to it for me that left me cold. I've had that issue with all of Spielberg's "important" films. They've never made me cry. They come off seeming too...technical, may be the word. Actually that's not quite true. I *did* cry--balled like a baby, in fact, surprising both my dad and brother--at Saving Private Ryan the first time I saw it, but *not* because of the movie itself, but because of the baggage I brought into it that was stirred by the "Tell me I've been a good man" line. (I'd been working on the war script that I'm now rewriting.) When I've seen it subsequently, I've still hugely appreciated it, but liked it less and less. I can see what I call the bones too much, which may be your armature. I can see the craft too much, the story construction, which makes it become too contrived for me. My favorite Spielberg film remains Raiders. It is the perfect action-adventure movie to me, and every bit of what I look for in a film.

I don't count him out, necessarily, but it just seems like whatever's infected film as a whole has infected him too. You're certainly right that his worst lately is better than most current directors' bests, but all of it is...diminished.

Clint said...

I have to say, I've been trying myself for years to figure out what it is exactly that's different, that happened twenty years ago or so, and while I can determine a number of factors, I certainly haven't discovered a grand unified theory. I actually sent an e-mail to David Bordwell last year about this. He said he'd address it in a then-upcoming blog post, but when it finally appeared, it wasn't really addressed to that point.

All I know is that among the films that I keep going back to either for sheer entertainment, appreciation, or both--Roman Holiday, Singin' in the Rain, The Apartment (much pleased to see that on your list), The Philadelphia Story, Holiday, The Grand Illusion, To Kill a Mockingbird (I like Gregory Peck), Rear Window, The Third Man, Brief Encounter, A Face in the Crowd, The Sting, Paper Moon (no, really; you can see why I paid close attention to what you write), Breaker Morant, Tender Mercies, Star Wars/Empire, Raiders--there's just a different feel than even the more modern ones I love. As much as I love, say, Back to the Future, Field of Dreams, Ruthless People (which is just brilliant), Out of Sight, O Brother Where Art Thou, Chicago, and Bourne Identity, and even all the Pixar films--I still think only Shawshank, Amelie, and the original Toy Story make it into that same kind of rarified air of the earlier films.

There's just something seemingly indefinable--or at least not reducible to a single factor--that raises them above the modern films. I think you're right that the writing, both in terms of story construction and sheer literariness, is a major component. But I also think the current crop of directors simply isn't up to the task of analyzing those scripts, and directing the actors, to match the earlier films, even given the exact same scripts. Capra would scold me I'm sure--"There are no bad actors, only bad directors!"--for suggesting that the current generation of actors, with a wholly different (I would argue largely inferior) cultural context than the actors he had to work with--may not be up to it either. (The studio system was good for some things, I would add.) But without directors to match, we'll never know.

Standard disclaimer: None of the above should be taken as evidence that I myself have learned, yet, what the hell I'm doing. That remains to be seen. But I do feel my targets are the correct ones.

Clint said...

I was just re-reading the parts of your book I wanted a refresher on and see that I'd already confused your "armature" for story structure. I forgot that you're using it in the sense of theme, the idea that a writer is trying to get across, not the construction of the story.

I'm now going to go back to reading your book and thinking about my script, since writing about writing is not, in fact, the same as writing.

Sprite said...

Congratulations Brian!,

I was so happy to see your book published, it is a true gem. I check amazon once in a while to see if the book is there and today I finally found it!. I can't wait to read the final version of it.

Keep the good work and we will keep learning,


Brian McD said...

Thanks, Eliana. Hope you are well.

-- Brian

KC said...

Brian, I recently traveled from Dallas to Austin to attend your seminar, which was well worth it! I'm at the TCM Classic Movie Festival in LA, and I'm watching all these terrific movies in a new light. Thanks, and wish you were here! Kirsten

Paul Harmon said...

Hi Brian,
I'm just finishing the book, I love it. I am a comic book artist and storyboard artist for tv animation. I'm also the guy at work that does not like most of the films others seem to love. I usually try and watch films from a storytellers perspective, and find what's working what I can use why something is appealing or not appealing. I'm trying to make a concerted effort to really understand the art of storytelling and make my stories stronger. Anyhow reading through your book there are definitely movies used as examples, that I do like and some I most definitely do not like. It made me think of some of Spielberg , some Pixar films that do not work for me and I wanted to ask if a film could hit pretty much all the areas you touch upon in the book and still somehow not work? Or is it at that point purely a matter of personal taste? Sometimes I feel like I see the "invisible ink" forced into the some films, but maybe that's something else I am seeing. I generally really enjoy a lot of Pixar films but at times and certain films especially I feel like I'm seeing characters simply go through a laundry list of story requirements and often I feel like there are scenes or actions that don't seem true to the character, and /or logic of that world. Are there films or stories that you feel technically meet most of the storytelling criteria but still do not work?
I want to go back and watch the 1972 film "The Other" keeping invisible ink in mind because I felt like that movie while not amazing, had a very strong armature , and that every last detail was reinforcing the themes.

Brian McD said...

Hey Kirsten,

I remember you. Thanks for coming to the blog. Sounds like you are having a great time in LA.

I'm glad to know that there is a TCM festival. It's also great to hear that you are seeing the films in a new light. Thanks for letting me know.

Glad I could help.

-- Brian

Brian McD said...

Hey Paul,

Glad you dig the book. Thanks for reading it.

You are wondering if people can follow the “rules” and still fail. Well, kind of. Think about it this way – imagine you work very hard a martial art and get very good.
That does not mean you will never get your ass kicked. All it means is that you stand a better chance of not getting you ass kicked.

Knowing what proper story structure is not a formula for never failing. But having said that I would say that when people who know story structure fail it is more often than not because they deviated from solid story structure. It is pretty always human error that ends up being the problem.

There are plenty of people whose work I like that do not always make a great film anymore than Michael Jordan made every shot he took. He just made more than anyone else.
As for seeing the “invisible ink” forced into things, all that means is that the person has not mastered the craft. It doesn’t mean that the technique is not sounds. Thinking of it the other way is like saying eating through one’s mouth is dangerous because sometimes people choke.

Anything can be done well or done poorly. There’s an old saying that says it’s a poor workman who blames his tools.

Story structure is a tool how well you use it is up to you.

Paul Harmon said...

Ah thanks Brian that makes perfect sense.
I've been showing the book to plenty of folks at work.
I'm looking forward to going through it again and putting together a notebook.
This blog is really addictive to read too. It's pretty amazing how many of the lessons and tips can be applied to art or any number of crafts.

kanishk said...

Congrats Brian! I'll have to head out and pick up a copy! Great work my friend!!
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hilscreate said...

Hi Brian,

Thank you for writing this wonderful book. I am a making my own animated short as well as a part time lecturer teaching animation and story telling in Singapore. And this book have become a valuable teaching to explain to the students about how to tell story. And it have been able to break everything down to simple and easy to understand language. We have just made it compulsory reading for the students. Again, thank you.