Thursday, March 31, 2011

Movies I Like: The Shawshank Redemption

It’s a little strange to write about this film because just about everyone already knows and loves it. I guess I hope to point out some of the craftsmanship that makes it so effective.

The film was adapted for the screen and directed by Frank Darabont, and is based on the novella by Stephen King, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.

First let me say first that I have been a Frank Darabont fan for many years. I mean back before most people even knew his name. In fact, I didn’t even know his name.

Back in the ’80s my roommate was make-up artist Todd Masters and he was working on a show called Tales from the Crypt. (Side note:  I worked for Todd and my job was putting stalactites on the Crypt-keeper’s ceiling.)

Anyway, Todd would bring home the scripts for all of the shows and, wanting to be a writer and hoping to write for the show, I would read every script. Most of the time I rolled my eyes and thought, I could write this. But one day I read a script that was supposed to be for a new show called Two-Fisted Tales (it later did become an episode of Tales from the Crypt) to be made by the same producers. I was blown away. This writer was good. He was really good. I held on to that script and still have it to this day. 

A few years later I watched the Young Indiana Jones show on television every week and was mostly disappointed. But there was one writer whose shows I always liked. They didn’t feel like the other episodes.

I had forgotten this guy’s name, but was so blown away when I saw The Shawshank Redemption that I would read anything I could get my hands on about the filmmaker. It was then I realized that I had liked Darabont’s work for years.

Why do I mention this?  Because this is a writer who understands craft, and it was as clear in his early work as it is later.

So let’s look at Shawshank. The story follows a banker, Andy Dufresne, as he endures several years in prison for the murder of his wife and her lover of which he claims to be innocent. While serving his time, he befriends with an inmate by the name of Red.

One of the things that Darabont does well is balance the feminine and masculine elements of his stories. Readers of my book Invisible Ink will know that I define masculine elements as the physical things that happen in a story. Things like plot, action, violence and the other things we associate with “guy movies.” Things blowing up. Think of your typical run-of-the-mill action film.

What I call feminine elements are the elements dealing with the internal world – the emotional world. Now we are talking about things like mood or the emotional life of characters. Think of what is commonly referred to as “chick flicks.”

Most writers are good at one, either the feminine or masculine element, but neglect the other. But when these elements are unbalanced the stories can become cartoonish and feel unreal.

Jaws, for example, is about a man-eating shark terrorizing a town and the sheriff who must stop it. Nothing special really – just a monster movie.

But add in the fact that the sheriff is scared half to death to be on the water, that this is his great fear, and now you have a strong feminine element and the entire thing has weight. Now it’s not just a hit, but also a classic.

Darabont knows how to balance these elements so that a harsh prison film becomes a tender story of friendship.

I had a student who could not for the life of him tell me the armature (theme) of Shawshank. He could not see it.  My guess is that most of you could identify the theme without too much trouble, but let's look at the film's clues.

How about the film’s use of clone characters. Again, I do go more into this in my book, but the short definition is that clones are secondary characters who give the audience a yardstick by which to measure a major character.

The most famous clones in storydom are the the Three Little Pigs. We measure the success of the last pig, who built his house of bricks, against the first two pigs, who were unsuccessful with their houses of straw and sticks, respectively.

There is an old man at the prison by the name of Brooks who has spent most of his life in prison. He is what Red, another long-time inmate, refers to as “institutionalized.”

As Red says it: “These prison walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them. That's institutionalized. They send you here for life, that's exactly what they take. The part that counts anyways.”

When Brooks gets out of prison the world is too much for him; he cannot to adjust to life on the outside. The old man carves the words “Brooks was here” into the wall of his cheap hotel and he hangs himself.

Later Red gets out of prison, gets the same job that Brooks had and is in the very same cheap hotel, in the very same room. Red also has a hard time on the outside.

But what does Red do? He carves into the very same wall, right next to Brooks’ words, the words “So was Red.” And with that he leaves this room to get on with his life.

We know that Red has succeeded because, just like with the Three Little Pigs, we have poor Brooks’ failure to measure him against.

So what is the film’s armature? Well, the main character of the piece, Andy Dufresne, is able to keep his spirits up through his years of prison and he brings hope and joy to a place with little of either. He teaches the inmates to live.

At one point in the film Andy tells Red that things come down to two choices: “Either get busy living or get busy dying.”

There it is. The theme. The whole movie tells us this. Every frame. And we see that Red has learned the lesson well when he walks out of that cheap hotel. Brooks got busy dying and Red got busy living.

Wow. Such beautiful work. Such command of craft.

I think this film is one of the best films anyone has ever made. Period.

P.S.  Here's some stuff about The Golden Theme:

Friday, March 18, 2011

Things Best Left Unsaid -- Writing Subtext

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while now, because one of the most difficult things to write about is subtext. One reason for this is that there are various meanings for the term. Some people say subtext to mean the overall theme of a story. This is not what I mean.

I am talking about all the things within a scene that are not being said between characters, but are really what the scene is about. Subtext can be very powerful emotionally and will engage your audience—and it is something that is pretty much always missing from the work of beginning writers. In amateurish works, characters always say just what they mean and mostly the scenes lie flat.

Why does subtext work? Because it gives the reader/viewer something to do. They are actively putting pieces together and seeing underneath appearances. When subtext is well constructed, it doesn’t look like writing at all.

But how do you write subtext? How do you write the unspoken? There is no right answer for this, but there are a few tricks.

The most familiar form of subtext is sarcasm—people saying one thing while meaning to communicate the opposite meaning: “Nice tie.” This is probably the most basic form, and not very sophisticated, but there are others.

There is a film called Tales of Manhattan where we follow a topcoat from one owner to the next, telling a story for each owner. It is really a series of shorts, and some segments are better than others. In one of the segments, a man who is an avid hunter takes a dashing young man into his trophy room to show off his prized hunting gun.

He shows the gun and they talk about it. The hunter talks about what a good, accurate gun it is and all of the great hunting he’s done with it. The scene could be mundane and boring, but it isn’t. It’s tense. When I show this clip in my classes the room is quiet and all eyes are riveted. The scene is all subtext.

This scene works because of the set-up. It has been established earlier that the hunter’s wife is having an affair with the young man. The woman also warns the young man that her husband has been drinking, and that he’s a little crazy when he drinks.

It is after this set-up that the drunken hunter takes the young man into his trophy room of mounted animal heads and shows off his gun, talks about its accuracy and how he likes to hunt. The whole scene is a threat.

Now, I have a writer friend who says this is not subtext because since one character has a gun, the scene could only be about one guy talking about killing the other. But you could take the same dialogue and make it an unwanted sexual advance, for instance.

I use this scene in classes because it is easily understood and can make it so that people learn to recognize what subtext looks and feels like.

There is another type of subtext that is harder to spot. Writer and director Robert Benton is a master of subtext. The things he doesn’t write are beautiful. He knows what not to say better than almost anyone.

In his film Places in the Heart a woman’s husband has been shot dead. She and her sister prepare the body for the funeral. The body is spread out on the very table where the family was earlier having dinner together.

As the woman and her sister prepare the body in silence, the woman begins to talk about all her life with her husband and ends with talking about a scar on his body that she had never seen before. She says she never knew about that scar.

The subtext is that they still had more living to do. That there were still things to learn about each other. It is beautifully simple and powerful. And it is subtext.

Another kind of subtext is to have characters talk about the opposite of what is going on in the scene. It has been pointed out by others that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, two characters who are obviously about to die, spend their time talking about the future.

In Of Mice and Men, one character has a speech he repeats about what he would do if he didn’t have to take care of the other one. It’s clear from his actions that he loves his friend, but that fact that he says the opposite makes the speech sweet without become saccharine. 

There is still another kind of subtext that is just the unexpressed emotion of a scene. I was once trying to explain to a playwright that the order of scene could make all of the difference. I said you could write a scene where a man is the life of a party. He smiles and jokes with everyone and he drinks to drunkenness. The more he drinks the funnier and friendlier he gets.

In the next scene he gets a letter telling him that his beloved son has died in the war.

In this order the first scene could get boring over time because really nothing is happening. It is a static scene and would get old quickly.

The scene where he gets the letter might have emotion because there is such a shift in tone from happiness to sadness. This is the order most writers would construct. But imagine the reverse: A man gets a letter that he beloved son has died. In the next scene he gets drunk and laughs and jokes. And drinks some more.

Now the audience feels the pain he is not expressing. They know he is drinking and joking because he is sad. Now the scene can last a while because it is layered. It could be agonizing to watch and at the same time riveting. The party scene has more depth, but only the order of scenes has changed. The writing itself is the same as before.

It can be hard mastering the constructing of subtext, but if one learns how to use it you can add a depth to your stories and scenes that will give them a professional sheen.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Browsing my Bookshelves

When I was a little kid I started reading about film, filmmakers, filmmaking. The first book I remember getting from the library was a book on Walt Disney—not the company, the man. After that I mostly read film books and magazines. I still apply many of the lessons I learned in those books I read so early on, and I add to this vast book collection all the time.

A little while ago someone requested that I take a picture of my bookshelf and post it on the blog. To be honest, I’m not sure what would be gleaned from this, but I’ll give it a shot.

One thing you are sure to learn is that I have a crappy camera on my phone.

You will notice, in the picture above, one of my favorite books on the craft: Television Plays by Paddy Chayfesky. I seem to mention it every other posting. In fact, I will buy copies if I see them at bookstores and give them to friends. Right now, I think I own three copies.

You should know that many of the great television writers from the 1950s wrote books like Chayefsky’s where they printed their plays and wrote essays about the profession.

You should also read Rod Serling’s Patterns: Four Television Plays.

You will also notice books on the subject of magic. I am a mediocre magician, but I don’t study magic to be a magician, but to be a better storyteller. A magic trick has the very same structure as a good story, and so to know magic is to understand how to communicate. 

Orson Wells knew magic, and it helped him on Citizen Kane when his budget was cut and he no longer had the money to build the elaborate sets he’d envisioned. He often built partial sets that receded into shadow. He knew just how much information to give an audience so that they would imagine the rest.

The other great thing about studying magic is that the best tricks, the ones that blow people’s minds, are the simplest ones. Learning magic can reinforce the power of simplicity.

I also like to read old interviews with the old masters of film. They were really, really smart. If you read what they say and follow their advice you will see your work improve.  You’ll be amazed. The stuff I know I learned from them.

Chuck Jones is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers. Period. I have learned as much from him as any live-action director. He admits that he stole liberally from Charlie Chaplin, and so I began to study Chaplin. Trust me, if you can learn to see the sheer genius of Chaplin, it is like the clouds parting and sunbeams shining through to the sound of Gregorian chants. Chuck Jones ripped him off shamelessly.

You can read some insightful Chaplin essays the back of a book called Discoveries: Charlie Chaplin by David Robinson.

Chaplin is so smart that he has an essay in this book about how “talkies” won’t last that even in hindsight seems to makes sense. At any rate, it does talk about the strength of visual storytelling.

Also for great lessons on visual storytelling read David Mamet’s On Directing Film.

For visual storytelling I like studying great illustrators and Norman Rockwell is one of the best artists to study for storytelling. Some people object to his subject matter and so dismiss his work—big ol’ fat mistake. Few people understand how to communicate so precisely. He knew just what to include in a picture to get an idea across. Why not learn from him? Me? I’m not smart enough not to learn from the best.

I have, in my time, read a ton of books on story-craft and have learned a lot from the construction of jokes that transfers directly to building stories.

Well, those are the highlights on my bookshelf. There were some things missing, but you get the basic idea of what’s there. Not sure if it was any help to anyone, but it was easy to write. And there isn’t much I can say that about.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Movies I Like: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Sometimes I feel very lucky to have grown up in the ’70s wanting to be a filmmaker. It was an amazing time in film. It also set me up for quite a fall because they just don’t make as many good films as they once did. There were so many classics made then that it was normal to see not just good films, but exceptional films. One of those films was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, released in 1975.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a film about a prisoner, Randle Patrick McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, who has been transferred to a mental hospital to be evaluated for mental illness. While there he meets his nemesis, a strict nurse named Mildred Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher, who makes his life very complicated.

Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is what I call an Angel From The Sky story.

First, let me tell you, I’m not big on the idea of genre. The way genres have been defined seems to be mostly about costumes and time periods rather than anything of substance.

A Western could be a love story, or a buddy story, or a heist story, or a father and son story; it could be a drama or a comedy, an action story or a coming of age story.  It could be anything. So how does one define a Western other than the clothes people wear?

I think this is true of all genres—they can be any kind of story.

But it can help us to organize when we put things into some kind of category. I like to find categories that help me navigate the construction of a story rather than tell me what they look like. So, here are genres that work for me. Maybe they can help some of you. Angel from the Sky is how I categorize One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Angel from the Sky stories take place in places of despair. They are sad places often without hope. It is into this world that the “Angel” enters. With him/her they bring hope, joy and often love. They often give people another state of mind—a new way to look at the world. When this is done, and the lesson is learned, the “Angel” goes away again. Sometimes that may even mean that they die.

These stories often have a magical or spiritual quality, and the stories have a special place in our hearts. Sometimes the characters may even be endowed with healing powers and other magical traits. Or they may have an almost supernatural ability to see hope where others see only pain.

E.T. is an angel from the sky. Elliot is missing his father and there is some sadness in his house. Elliot is also a child who does not know how to empathize with others. E.T. comes in, brings joy and love, and teaches Elliot to feel for others. When the lesson is learned, he leaves. E.T. heals Elliot’s cut finger, has the ability to fly and levitate objects, and has a magical link with Eliot that is so strong that when E.T. gets drunk so does Elliot. It is through of this connection that E.T. is able infect Elliot with empathy.

In the Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne comes in to a prison—a place without joy, beauty, or hope—and teaches others to find these things. Andy does things like play opera over the prison loudspeakers and brings beauty to a place with little of it. 

And he does something to allow him to give get a couple of beers for his fellow inmates so that for, if only for a few minutes, they feel free. He gives hope to the hopeless and then he leaves. But the people left behind are changed.

The classic Cool Hand Luke is a story that also takes place in a prison setting—but more of a prison camp. Luke is a character who will not let himself be broken by the harsh treatment of the prison overseer and guards. Luke keeps running away. He is captured and punished harshly each time, but he refuses to be broken and becomes a hero to the other inmates. These “angels” are often not treated well by the power structure or by the society at large.

The Green Mile is another story with a character who brings love to a prison’s death row—a place of ultimate despair.

These kinds of stories, when told well, have enormous power. They can move people deeply.

And I mean no disrespect when I say this, but the story of Jesus is probably the most famous of these types of stories. Whatever you personally believe, you cannot deny that the story has moved many people deeply. I do not mean to say that Cuckoo’s Nest’s McMurphy is a Jesus figure, only that the story pattern is the same.

McMurphy enters the world of the mental hospital—a place without joy—and brings joy and teaches others to find it. He frees them from their mental prisons. He teaches them how to live.

The film is moving, hopeful and full of love all without being overly sentimental or sappy. Sit down and watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s so good it’s crazy.